Quentin Blake: interview

Quentin Blake's drawings for Roald Dahl have captivated and inspired generations of children (and grown-ups). As a stage version of Dahl's 'The Twits' arrives in London this Christmas, we asked Blake to create and exclusive festive cover for Time Out London magazine. He also agreed to a rare interview talking about his relationship with Dahl, illustration in the digital age and why his craft 'isn't just a watered-down version of painting.'

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    The Twits light up Christmas. Illustrated by Quentin Blake

    Do you feel that illustration is in danger of being neglected as an art form?

    Well, it isn’t neglected, in the sense that everybody looks at it, but it’s true that nobody says very much about it. Most people who write about art don’t really write about it – I think they’re a bit embarrassed. There’s a kind of snobbery involved. I don’t think there’s an illustrator who’s as good as a Titian or a Rembrandt… but then, Rembrandt was a bit of an illustrator on the quiet, you know? There is that sort of graphic narrative in his work, his drawings are wonderful, and I think they have a bearing on illustration. But illustration is not a watered-down version of painting. There is an instinct within us to tell stories with pictures, and illustration is the vernacular expression of that.

    You’ve been trying to found a Museum of Illustration in London for a few years now; how’s that going?

    Everyone we speak to about it is enthusiastic, but the problem is to find a suitable home. At the moment, our plan A is a building in the King’s Cross redevelopment, which is exciting. There are young people who do illustration in art school because they’re interested in that sort of narrative figurative work, but a lot of them don’t know their own history. There’s a great tradition of English illustration, and we want to celebrate that and let people know about it.

    Would your own art have gone in a different direction if you hadn’t been lured into the commercial world?

    Well, one always has an instinct to be a painter, and I’ve done quite a lot of painting at one time or another, though not with any public success. I’ve spent quite a lot of time doing oil paintings and they’re not at all like the illustrations. I suppose I could imagine at a different time a version of myself which brought more of those things together… But the thing is, sometimes people imagine that there is what I do that gets printed, and that is, as it were, my ‘commercial’ work, and then there’s something called my ‘own’ work. Well, what is printed is my own work too, and it’s as deeply my own work as anything I do, really – I mean the best bits of it are.

    Do you work on computers these days or do you stick to traditional methods?

    I’ve only used a computer about once. In many ways, I’ve gone back, if you like – I use more old-fashioned implements now than I did. I use a nineteenth-century pen nib all the time, but I also use reed pens, which are very good to draw with – it’s a tough sort of mark – and I’ve used quills as well sometimes. But then you know it’s going to be printed using the most up-to-date technology, which I rather enjoy. I’ve done a couple of things recently that I couldn’t have done without technology: one was an exhibition in Paris last year, for the reopening of the Petit Palais Museum, where I drew on the wall. Except I didn’t draw on the walls, I drew them in the studio and they were enlarged 20 times and printed on to transparent vinyl and stuck on to the walls. I couldn’t have done that without technology, I would have had to have been up a ladder doing it. And the other similar thing I’ve done recently is a lot of drawings for the walls of the South Kensington and Chelsea Mental Health Unit, which treats elderly patients. They’re in the outpatients bit, so anyone can go and have a look at them.

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